© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012

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Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen

Recommended for: Fantasy and adventure fans of all ages and genders, colors and creeds (so long as they be over the age of 10). This one is an across the board crowd-pleaser.

One Word Summary: Intoxicating.

As cunning, precise and transformative as one of the many elixirs in the titular Apothecary’s bottles, there is real magic contained in the pages of Maile Meloy’s The Apothecary, her first venture into the world of children’s fiction. A perfect concoction of genuinely thrilling action, a uniquely imagined historical setting and truthful, vibrant characters, this book is a draught to awe young readers and reawaken a love of mystery and excitement in their world-weary elders.

Set in 1952, Apothecary follows fourteen year-old Janie Scott as she and her parents are chased out of Los Angeles amidst accusations of Communist sympathies, and relocate to a still tremulous and bomb-scarred

The Apothecary

By Maile Meloy

post World War II London. Janie is understandably horrified to have left her sunny California home for the dreary, fractured Britain, her family’s tiny new flat, and a new school where the people are as baffling as the Latin class she has to pick up mid semester. Though smart and independent like her idol, Katherine Hepburn, Janie can’t believe she’ll ever learn to fit into this damp, colorless new place. But one day Janie and her father stop in the apothecary shop around the corner to buy some hot water bottles, since their apartment is unheated, and the older man behind the counter says he has just the thing to cure her homesickness. Janie is skeptical, but humors the kindly chemist and takes his potion.

At school during lunchtime, a routine bomb drill sends all the students underneath their desks to assume the “duck and cover” position, but one boy stays in his seat. Janie watches as her classmate remains defiant, despite threats of detention, proclaiming the nonsense of the exercise, that they’d all be burned to cinders if a nuclear bomb were actually to drop. Intrigued by his boldness, Janie comes to know the boy as Benjamin Burrows, an excitable,

imaginative boy whose mother was killed in a bomb blast during the war. Benjamin shares Janie’s quick wit and dreams of one day becoming a spy.  While Benjamin appreciates Janie’s willingness to play chess with him and her indulgence in his spy games, Janie appreciates Benjamin’s sandy brown hair and bright smile. You can see where this is going. As it turns out, Benjamin is not just a classmate of hers, he is also the son of the apothecary from the shop near her flat, and just as her new friendship begins to solidify, Janie realizes that her homesickness has disappeared. Was it the development of this new crush? Or was it the Apothecary’s potion?

But before she can get to the bottom of that question, Benjamin’s interest in espionage and surveillance taps into something much bigger than he anticipated. While shadowing the Russian father of one of their classmates, Janie and Benjamin uncover an international conspiracy involving Soviet double agents, a nuclear arms race in the making, and a secret society of scientists, all swirling around the clandestine work of Benjamin’s father who, suffice it to say, is no mere pharmacist.

I have to confess, I have no substantial critique to offer of this story because I absolutely melted into the book’s pages. Of course this is probably the greatest compliment that any reviewer can endow on a book: that I was so swept away that I forgot to read critically. The Apothecary is a tremendously well-imagined story; sophisticated and restrained, while delivering the kind of magic that will reduce any reader to a state of childlike wonder. What a marvelous experience it is to read a story with no notion of where it will take you, but every confidence that it will be a thrilling, enrapturing ride. Meloy writes with the kind of authority that makes you a believer. 

As much fun as there is to be had in Apothecary, there is also a lot of serious thought. This is, after all, a story laced with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Most of the characters in this story have been directly affected by the brutality of war, and Meloy does something absolutely brilliant in her handling of these massive issues. In the world of The Apothecary, magic is not without consequence. I was reminded of The Wizard of Earthsea by her notion that great acts of magic, however wondrous, are a disruptive force to the order of the universe, and a sort of shadow is released in the aftermath of these fantastical feats. It’s a much more thoughtful position to take over the free-wheeling, abundant, consequence free magic as it’s depicted in the majority of middle grade fantasy (Sorry, Harry). She positions this concept as a parallel to the tremendous power of nuclear weaponry. Though terrible, these bombs are also awe-inspiring in their transformative abilities, just as the Apothecary’s potions are, but their use has incredible ramifications. It’s a very subtle point to make, and such a smart way to help younger readers get their heads around such an adult concept.

In that same vein, to draw another comparison, there are notes of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in Meloy’s depiction of kids who are forced to grapple with a terrifyingly grown up world. Just as the Pevensie children are shipped to the countryside, away from their parents, to escape the likelihood of being killed by a German bomb and discover a magical world which they escape into, so too are Janie and Benjamin thrust out from the protective umbrella of their parents and find elation in a magical escape. But Meloy’s characters are never allowed to step fully through the wardrobe. Janie and Benjamin are brought face to face with the realities of this new atomic world, and Meloy’s frankness, her unflinching honesty goes a long way to prove her respect for the intelligence and maturity of her young audience.

And to think this is only her first children’s book! Welcome to the wonderful world of middle grade fiction, Maile Meloy, and welcome to our Golden Key Collection. We can’t wait to see what you do next

Golden Key Collectionhttp://apothecary.therustykey.com/Tags__Golden_Key_Collection.html
Coming of Agehttp://apothecary.therustykey.com/Tags__Coming_of_Age.html